I have a vivid memory from childhood that has stuck with me: I’m in the back of my mom’s car at the drive-thru bank in our town. As she presses a button, a capsule shoots up a clear tube out of sight. A disembodied, telephonic voice emanates from a speaker, says a few words, and seconds later the capsule glides back down the tube, this time filled with money and a lollipop for me, as if by magic. Perhaps it is the image of Jetson-ian ‘tube-based’ movement, or the unforgettable summation of the internet itself as ‘a series of tubes’ by Senator Ted Stevens; something about housing and moving information, infrastructure, or objects with compressed air via (usually underground or hidden) tube networks just aesthetically strikes us as futuristic.
There is a long history of humans envisioning a faster, ‘non-traditional’ conception of movement; always looking for a shortcut, there had to be some system that could bypass the pitfalls of conventional mobility allowing for a faster, unobstructed journey. The pneumatic tube thus functions as both an example of technology and a piece of infrastructure to facilitate technological or information transfer. Susan Stewart mentions in her piece, ‘Plato likens the pigeon to a bit of knowledge’(1); like ‘pigeonholes’, each opening in a pneumatic tube arrangement not only serves to house ‘knowledge,’ whether it be a physical object or document, but to move that particular piece to a specific and purposeful destination. The idealized vision of pneumatic systems was intended to help move humans faster and with less obstruction, and to help businesses move product between locations — and it brought a futuristic expediency to these otherwise banal and unavoidable tasks.
Further adding to the air of ‘futuristic’ or liminality is the concealment of these tube systems: we typically only see the intake/output aspect of the operation before the tubing network vanishes into a wall, or underground. This obfuscation of the apparatus functions in stark contrast to the purposeful design and arrangement of of shelving, as discussed in the Mattern piece: “we put things on shelves, rather than behind doors or in drawers… when they’re sufficiently attractive for display’(2). While these systems of cascading tubes are fascinating, we tend to bury the infrastructural underpinning within or beneath architecture; we see only the initial setup and final product. Preceding our modern conception of ‘instant’, the ability to stick something into a tube in the wall and have it reach its targeted destination almost instantly has a distinctly science-fiction appeal (unsurprisingly, the use of the pneumatic tube in works of fiction is widespread). Fitting with the sci-fi aesthetic, operators of pneumatic systems even referred to themselves as ‘rocketeers'(3).
Chun describes new media as ‘[racing] simultaneously towards the future and the past, towards what we might call the bleeding edge of obsolescence’(4). The pneumatic tube system falls within the realm of technology once viewed as forward-thinking and potentially revolutionary, only to be rendered outdated by new developments. Once these tube systems lose their utility, a skeletal remainder physically remains. The disused pneumatic system at the Brooklyn Public Library looked worn like other machinery we saw, but somehow also out of place, as if from a totally different era. The demise of pneumatic tube systems was brought about by their high cost (as is often the case), and what was once a tangible tool of ‘the future’ swiftly became a relic of dated thought. The New York Times eulogizes the once state-of-the-art New York pneumatic mail system as such:
For the time, the system was thoroughly modern, even high-tech, a subterranean network for priority and first-class mail fueled by pressurized air. Only a few decades later it was mostly a dinosaur, made obsolete by the motor wagon and then the automobile.(5)
Like the payphone or the railway semaphore, a physical monument to the obsolescence of entire networks remains visible with its intended purpose obfuscated. To those not aware of the history, these structures become simply another topographical marker. Much like actual dinosaurs, we are left with only skeletal remains hinting at the magnitude of something lost to time.
We got to personally see a pneumatic system now relegated to an antique at the Brooklyn Public Library. This is the conundrum of the technology: in present day it is both obsolete and yet still somehow reminiscent of ‘futuristic’ ideals. In her piece, Stewart mentions Cornell’s 1952 work Dovecote, which featured colored balls that could be moved from panel to panel via a series of hidden tracks within the frame of the work: “Dovecote…presents an image of memory in a process of disappearance… Dovecote appears as… a forgotten function, a device no one remembers.”(6) By design we are only privy to the ‘beginning and ending’ of pneumatic systems, unable to see the obscured infrastructure. In this way at a glance, the obsolete systems visually call to mind notions of immediacy, ‘magic’ transportation, and both the past and the present at once.
Pneumatic tube systems are still in place and functional in certain modern settings: banks, fast food restaurants, and somewhat regularly within hospitals to transport samples or medicine to and from labs. The technology has also been applied to scenarios far beyond urbanized environments: Whooshh Innovations has crafted a pneumatic tube system used to transport migrating fish over dams, ensuring the integrity of natural ecosystems and man-made infrastructure (I thought I was clever in finding this, but as it turns out the Jon Oliver show has already produced a ‘viral clip’ about the novelty of this technology).
Perhaps the most well-known modern adaptation of the pneumatic tube system has been popularized by eccentric and ambien-fueled tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Hyperloop has proposed the development of an underground human-transport system that would allow for coast-to-coast travel at breakneck (hopefully not literally) speeds. Using a combination of a pneumatic system and mag-lev technology used in ‘bullet trains’, initial designs offer yet another iteration of a ‘futuristic’ re-imagining of how to transport things faster than the current paradigm. Like most of Elon Musk’s ideas, Hyperloop attracted a lot of interest with detractors and proponents attempting to reason how and why this system could work or fail. Vox describes the promise of pneumatic travel as ‘part Victorian, part Jetson’(7) (to me, there is an element of Super Mario as well), and there is something undeniably more idealistically ‘futuristic’ about tube travel than even another one of Musk’s conceptions, the self-driving car, offers. Perhaps the immediacy of ‘instantaneous’ travel at some point stops resembling technology and becomes something more like ‘magic’.
3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sd58w0CXQrM @1:10
Dovecote by Joseph Cornell